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THE HISTORY OF A CLOSURE

- How a road was restored to its rightful owners

The story of a more-than-a-decade-long road closure surrounding the American embassy in New Delhi — now withdrawn — is the story of the most egregious land-grab in the heart of India’s capital by the United States of America, playing on the trauma and disquiet among Indian officials after the events of September 11, 2001. Within hours of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, called a meeting of the cabinet committee on security to which the three armed-services chiefs and heads of security agencies were also invited. “We have already initiated action for providing all necessary additional security and safeguards required for the US embassy [in New Delhi and American consulates in other cities],” the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, announced suo motu after the CCS meeting.

The very next day, the president, K.R. Narayanan, who did not have a great reputation as a friend or admirer of Washington, reflected the mood in India when he wrote to George W. Bush that “we stand united with the American people in this hour of grief”. Four days later, Vajpayee spoke to Bush at Camp David, and the US president agreed to receive the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, soon after. India’s top leadership having set that tone of commiseration with the American people, their diplomats in New Delhi could ask for almost anything and hope to get an answer in the affirmative. Files in the archives of the ministry of external affairs now reveal that these American diplomats proceeded to do just that.

In complete inconsideration of several other embassies and diplomatic residences in Chanakyapuri, the Americans approached the Indian government with their intention to appropriate a whole stretch of thoroughfare, Nyaya Marg, merely because they did not want to cross a public road from the rear of their main embassy on Shanti Path to the secondary properties that lay on Nyaya Marg. They also owned properties beyond Nyaya Marg: the American Embassy School is on Chandragupta Marg. The recreation facilities of the American Community Support Association, its bar, swimming pool and restaurant on embassy premises, have their main entrance on Panchsheel Marg, which is adjacent to Nyaya Marg.

Looking back, it is reminiscent of the methods of the East India Company that in the wake of September 11, exploiting the sympathy that was triggered by al Qaeda’s terrorist acts, US diplomats in New Delhi had the temerity to demand that the public roads they cross in Chanakyapuri should be exclusive to them and that no one else, not even ambassadors and diplomats from other countries who lived on those roads, should be allowed to use them.

MEA files now categorically reveal that security was not the consideration for closing the road behind the American embassy. It was a courtesy extended to the staff of the US embassy at their request in the post-September 11 surfeit of sympathy so that they could cross this road, Nyaya Marg, unimpeded.

This should never have been done, even in the flush of commiseration with the people of America. And in doing so, a thought should have been spared for the staff of the neighbouring French embassy, who were put to great inconvenience by the closure of Nyaya Marg. The French ambassador’s residence could only be reached by a longer route because of the road closing. The Swedish embassy suffered even more: their main entrance is on Nyaya Marg.

The French have stood by India more solidly than any other major country, with the solitary exception of Russia, on issues of its concern and national interest. The Swedes have been major donors for India’s development since Independence. Neither the French nor the Swedes retaliated in Paris or in Stockholm against the respective Indian embassies in these cities: if they had taken any retaliatory action on the strict principle of reciprocity such action would have been fully justified.

It is depressing to recall how America squandered such deep and widespread support they garnered from all over the world in the aftermath of September 11. In New Delhi, there were no murmurs of disapproval over road closures because the overwhelming popular view at that time was that such gestures to America were their due even if threat perceptions did not warrant them. And if such actions helped prevent anything happening to Americans that had even a whiff of the terrorist attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, they should be sanctioned even at considerable inconvenience to others.

There have been suggestions from time to time at internal government meetings that Nyaya Marg should be reopened to the public and that periodic reviews showing lesser threat perceptions to the US embassy in New Delhi should be acted upon. But no one in the government wanted to pursue any unpleasant options with the Americans. Meanwhile, the US embassy in New Delhi appeared to have become a victim to India’s VIP culture: so any downgrading of security would have been unpalatable to them. In any case, they have the wherewithal to whip up a storm in New Delhi on any issue of their concern and that capability has been on display many times. So the matter was never seriously taken up.

Two years ago, after the US accused Iran of plotting to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington, US security agencies did an audit of the vulnerability of diplomatic missions in their national capital. The Indian embassy in Washington came up short during this exercise. Subsequently, the Indian government undertook a comprehensive enhancement of security systems and procedures at the mission. Therefore, it came as a surprise recently, when municipal workers on Washington’s embassy row set about uprooting road signs in front of the Indian embassy that proclaimed the street as a parking zone for the Indian ambassador and other senior diplomats. Thereafter, they put up new signs and installed pay-and-park meters, which allowed anyone to park their vehicles within a stone’s throw of the Indian chancery building, an ostensible terrorist target.

The Indian embassy queried the US authorities in the matter, but as in the Devyani Khobragade case, these representations elicited no reply. The twin idea of reopening Nyaya Marg and allowing cars into the service road off Shanti Path right in front of the US embassy was then approved as a reciprocal action by India. It would have been done, anyway, in response to Washington’s decision to allow public parking literally at the doorstep of the Indian embassy, in total disregard of the mission’s safety. The reopening of the Chanakyapuri roads was on the MEA’s table well before India’s deputy consul general in New York was arrested and strip-searched. That it happened after Khobragade’s detention was one of those coincidences that gave this decision a different colour.

The traffic pattern around the US embassy is unlikely to return to its old ways even after the case of the Indian diplomat is resolved in New York and the two countries decide to move on to restore a semblance of status quo ante. For one thing, the other embassies that have a better claim to Nyaya Marg as a thoroughfare, most notably the French, will vehemently protest against closing the road again so that Americans can cross the street as if it is their private property.

The sympathy for Americans over September 11, which facilitated the road closure, has long evaporated in France and Sweden, and, in India, it has been replaced, after the New York arrest, by anger and demands for strict reciprocity with Washington. In real life, properties that are appropriated immorally — even if legally — are rarely restituted. Nyaya Marg may be that rare instance of such a restitution of a piece of real estate of immense value to its rightful owners, the citizenry of Delhi.